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Does philanthropy play a role in making bright futures?

Contrary Brin - Tue, 07/04/2017 - 16:24
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Independence Day is a good time to reflect on the big picture. Like "what will it take to create a civilization that's truly worthy of the name? One that might be much better than ours, because we planted seeds to make it so?"  

It can happen! Every single day, more than 200,000 human beings exit grinding poverty and another 200,000 or so depart mere poverty and enter something that could be called "lower middle class," with electricity, potable water, a safe roof and kids in school. That's every day, so clearly some combination of efforts by entrepreneurs, governments and donors can work... just not fast enough. There's always a desperate need to speed things up.

Yesterday I had lunch with Keith Kegley, who has helped develop Social Venture Partners into a dynamo in the philanthropic world, by guiding groups, NGOs, and individuals to invest in ongoing enterprises that do good -- many of them while at least breaking even, or perhaps making enough money to plow back into more positive sum activities.  SVP has 3000+ partners, from Boston to Bangalore.  Great, world-changing work, Keith.

I've been writing about philanthropy for twenty years. The most important pair of concepts I've pushed deal with two ends of the giving spectrum... to convince zillionaires to get more involved... 

   ...and how each middle class citizen can maximize impact to help save the world, according to her or his own, quirky standards. A method that's inexpensive and so easy it might even be called lazy, but that lets you check off boxes -- "I want someone to deal with that... and that" -- so each year you can confirm: "I'm one of the good people, not part of the problem."

We'll return to both of those concepts in a bit. But first...

== (Almost) the world's most successful entrepreneur weighs in ==

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos stirred a lot of discussion with his tweeted request for ideas/suggestions for how to do well-targeted philanthropy.  A great question! Here's my tweet response: 
"Jeff, years ago we spoke of getting ALL zillionaires to do this. e.g. via a catalog of pre-vetted projects."
Here's a more extended answer that I sent by email:
Jeff, you may recall how once, over dinner, we discussed my paper about a core problem (and solution) for philanthropy. 
- Host a series of fascinating meetings, asking top visionaries and practical solvers to create a list of projects needed by the world and by people -- a catalog that's pre-vetted for plausibility.
- That catalog would make a great book, inspiring folks to look at ambitious projects. (Some with long range profit potential.)
- The meetings, arguments and vetting could make a great TV series! That, by itself, might do good, even when a project is rejected.
- If just two or three other well-off families were inspired to take on a catalogued project, the multiplier effect could be huge.
I'll discuss this "EON" concept a little more, below. But first, some illustrations of how seriously some folks take the need to prod at the definitions of "giving."

== Philanthropic Innovation ==

Michael J. Totten and Brian C. Anderson discuss the rising homelessness facing Portland, Oregon. Within their dialogue they discuss Dignity Village, an informal homeless “city” democratically organized by residents and privately maintained. Over time, the village evolved from a typical homeless camp to a neighborhood of tiny homes. The village prohibits drug use and self-regulates its membership while requiring no tax-payer funds.

Along similar lines, Nolan Gray elevates our view of trailer parks by highlighting how they represent one of the last market-based, low-income housing solutions. Moreover, Gray explains, these neighborhoods bear aspects of traditional urban design as well as a blend of individual choice and private governance. While not failing to recognize their inherent challenges, Gray brings the virtues of spontaneous community order into focus.

These articles, published by my friends at the Philanthropic Enterprise, represent the last, fading glimmers of grownup, generously positive-thinking conservatism, extolling the benefits of self-organizing communities that do not wait for largesse from cumbersome governments.  

By the way, that spirit is also expressed by author Brenda Cooper in her story “Streetlife in the Emerald City,” in our recent anthology, Chasing Shadows.
Alas, it will be more plausible to listen to the well-meaning Philanthropic Enterprise folks when we finally hear them admit: 

Yes, 90% of the U.S. right has gone stark, jabbering, treasonously insane and this resurgent confederacy must be defeated. But, while we join all decent Americans in thwarting the fox-feudalist lunacy, we’ll also nurse the embers of a decent, not-socialist tomorrow.”
(Okay, I won't insist on exactly those words. How about just: "Supply side never worked. And Rupert Murdoch has deeply harmed American conservatism. And let's oppose feudalism as vigorously as we oppose Big Brother government."  I'll settle for that.)

But let's get back to the big picture. Is the world improvable by human intervention? 

== Perspective ==

Nostalgia is a condition that all humans produce, often evoking either pain or pleasure, or both. 

It can also be one of the “addictive mental states” that I’ve written about, which trigger chemical releases that become compulsory.  

Not all addictive mental states are unwholesome! We are addicts to our kids, love, friendship and the exercise of profound skill.  Others, like sanctimony and rage, can be as driving and as destructive as heroin. See: Indignation, addiction and hope: Does it help to be 'mad as hell?'
Nostalgia's debilitating effects are more subtle than rage-addiction. But it can be almost as deeply harmful, undermining our confidence that problems can be solved with goodwill, pragmatism, negotiation and belied that our parents and grandparents weren't fools. They believed in us and we can prove them to have been right.

Ah, but there's another mental disease. One that is closely related to nostalgia.

== Romantics could be the death of us ==

People keep asking me why -- given that the most noxiously dangerous madness is currently on the political right -- I keep reminding folks to also keep a way eye on the far-left. The reason is simple. 

Romanticism should stick to novels, poems and movies. In politics it turns deadly and generally does evil.

Take just one trait that nearly all zero-sum, romantic-transcendentalist-dogmatists share. That trait is TELEOLOGY. A tendency to assume that history has a predictable pattern that it is destined to follow. (Bear in mind, below, that I actually quite despise the so-called "left-right political axis" -- a metaphor that is lobotomizing, dumb, inaccurate and misleading; but we must use it because so many romantics self-define that way.)

Simplistically-speaking: leftists tend to believe that history has a direction, toward upward progress that's unstoppable. They almost never contemplate the implications, but they do believe in upward teleology.
Rightists tend to glom onto different versions of teleology -- generally "cyclical history."  They often declare that civilization is fated to rise and fall, going back well before Oswald Spengler's infamously stupid screed "The Decline of the West," and Hitler's loony Horbigger Cult of cyclical falling moons and so on. See also the dumb and easily-refuted "Tytler Calumny" that rightists use to slander democracy. And the more recent alluring incantation called the "Fourth Turning."
It doesn't matter that professional historians, statisticians and others who actually seek such patterns never, ever find them. Both teleologies are purely incantations, designed to flatter the believer's biases.  
The leftist gets to murmur: "we shall overcome, no matter how many troops the Czar has!"
The rightist gets to mutter: "No matter how much so-called "progress" you bastard reformers make, it will inevitably get trashed and go to hell!"
Different dreams but the same romantic-teleological twaddle.
How does this relate to philanthropy?
Because generosity to the poor -- or the planet -- has grown up a bit and become fixed on outcomes rather than the old emphasis -- benefiting the soul of the giver. Both romantic mythologies -- focused on either inevitability or futility -- stab at the thing that is making all the difference in the world: pragmatically vigorous reform. Negotiated and practical action. Vigorously confident belief in both a commons and entrepreneurship. 
Awareness that the odds have always been stacked against this enlightenment renaissance. But determination to make a whole new path for history, despite the impediments of romantic fools.

== Related Miscellany ==

Clear-eyed examination of the guilty past can find both cause for reflective regret and also surprising glimpses of decency, as people adapt to change. This moving little piece tells one such tale.
Vaclav Vincalek has an interesting series of podcasts on information, data, programming and such.
All right, one admits to mixed feelings about this video, combining admiration with outrage. With appreciation of precocious competence!  

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

How People Get to Whatever, 2017 Midyear Report

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 07/04/2017 - 13:12
This is going to be a blog stats nerdery report, so you can skip it entirely if this sort of thing bores you. At the halfway point of 2017, Whatever is on track to have the lowest number of direct site visits of any year since 2008, which is the year the site started being […]

The Big Idea: Martha Wells

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 07/04/2017 - 10:40
All good things come to an end, and for The Harbors of the Sun, the last book in Martha Wells’ Raksura series, the author takes a look at how she got here, and what the series, and the journey of writing it, has meant to her. MARTHA WELLS: After four novels, and two novella collections, […]

In Which I Trespass Against Dan Wells at Denver Comic Con, and He Exacts His Fitting Revenge, a Tale Told in Two Tweets

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 07/02/2017 - 19:05
So no one came to my signing, and then @scalzi came to say hi, and then someone came with books BY HIM SO HE COULD SIGN THEM AT MY SIGNING. — Dan Wells (@TheDanWells) July 2, 2017 Revenge.@scalzi — Dan Wells (@TheDanWells) July 2, 2017 That’s fair.  In other news, at the airport […]

Denver Comic Con Check-in

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 07/01/2017 - 19:37
I’m alive. And busy! How are you?

Hypocrisies from the past and future

Contrary Brin - Sat, 07/01/2017 - 15:02
Oh the two-faced silliness.  The new "election fraud commission" has demanded information - including social security numbers - of every voter in America, without even setting up a secure and vetted site and infrastructure to receive and secure the information. And that sets aside the Orwellian aspects of the plan.

To be clear, my resistance is not purist or reflexive. I would happily support a major beefing up in voter ID if it were part of a negotiated deal that included:

(1) massive compliance assistance to help poor people, divorced women, the elderly etc to actually get proper ID. (Without this, every single person shouting about Voter ID is a pure hypocrite.)

(2) a national agency to vet and inspect every voting machine and ensure that it is both secure and paper-trail hand-auditable

(3) weekend voting, and finally

(4) an end to gerrymandering.

Dems should say: “Fine. You give in on those four honorable and reasonable things and we’ll consent to a massive, five year program to ensure all votes and voters have proper ID.  

Refuse those reasonable things and all you prove yourselves to be is hypocrites.  Well... that and outright cheaters.

== Repeal, Don't Replace? ==

Don't think that "Repeal, don't Replace" is a bug -- it is a feature.  To be clear, even the draconian-stupid-cruel House and Senate bills on the table do not actually rescind Obamacare rules. They merely tweak factors and conditions and amounts and thresholds within Obamacare! Which would be fine, but for the outcomes, which are universally bad for everyone. Oh, and the hypocrisy of raging against a program that had been the GOP's original plan, all along! Including the Individual Mandate... all part of the Republican Platforms - and RomneyCare - for a decade. That is, till Obama touched it and gave it cooties.

Oh, but now Trump is saying: "Just repeal! We'll replace it later!"

The principal effect that folks and press foresee will be tossing 24 million off health insurance and sending us back to double digit health cost increases.  

But that masks the main GOP priority, and top effect, which will be to give the top 0.1% a huge tax cut. They know that supply side voodoo cuts for the aristocracy have never delivered predicted benefits. Not once. Ever in any place, at any time, in any context. But they figure they can eke through one more in this way.

== The opposite to philanthropy... ... or sanity... or Jesus ==

See a superficial but informative - if a bit biased - overview of the darker side of transhumanism: "The Techno-Libertarians Praying for Dystopia." Every paragraph of this essay contains insights and truths, especially about the clade of unsavory ingrates who were given everything they have by enlightenment civilization, and who respond by gleefully pissing in its patient and ever-generous face.
Beyond failing to note this ungrateful hypocrisy, the writer - Mark O'Connell - alas falls short in dozens of other ways. For example, he fails to note that human improvability or augmentation or even transcendence do not have to lead straight back to feudal-style hierarchies - though, yes, that is the aim of raving neo-feudalist Holnist wannabes -- dreamy putzes who hilariously assume they'd land on top, in a dog-eat-dog world; when they would be bitches or kibble. 
In fact, going back to Wells and Asimov and Heinlein, there have been thinkers who pondered how equality of opportunity -- at least in generous spirit -- could continue in a future that offers countless options to all. The very same enlightened attitude that brought us here, out of feudalism's festering 6000 years of delusional stupidity.
O'Connell quotes libertarian maven Peter Thiel: "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” And I throw up my hands over the insipidity of alpha-minuses who cling desperately to the delusion that they are alpha-plusses.
Really? Dig this, neither freedom nor democracy are the deep fundamentals at issue here!  

We treat them as sacred things, because only by sacralizing them can we give them the devoted protection that they need, in the face of other, older and nastier axioms. But in fact, Democracy and Freedom are fundamentally justified by their undeniably spectacular effects.

They are both pragmatic tools that empowered the Enlightenment to achieve the one, central invention that created our renaissance of science, productivity and low error rates.  The one thing that enabled us to create positive sum arenas which ended vast wastage of human talent (typical in other societies) and whose outputs have been staggeringly and exponentially greater than all other human cultures. All others, combined.
== Let me explain, one more time ==

It should please my libertarian friends - those not steeped in randian masturbatory fantasies - that I deem the core desideratum to be competition. Or more exactly: reciprocal accountability, the essence I described in The Transparent Society. Adam Smith, the American founders and the great transformative scientists all know that human beings are delusional... indeed, so will be AI!  
The paramount fact about Homo sapiens is that we cannot pierce our own delusions. But others, outside our own echoing skulls can point them out for us, a service provided by our competitive arenas: markets, democracy, science, courts and sports. (But not yet provided by the Internet!)
Freedom and democracy are good things. But their primary justification and utility arise when they serve as ways to open up reciprocal accountability, criticism and error-correcting competition. To be clear, you cannot get actual, flat-open-fair and transparent competitive arenas without freedom or without democracy.  

Without the miracle invention of reciprocal accountability, we would soon be locked back into some feudal or quasi-feudal hierarchy, drenched in delusion and error and voluptuous incantations that self-serve a circle-jerking elite... 
...exactly the format that crushed the hopes of 99% of our ancestors, leaving us mired for 60 unnecessary centuries in crushing filth and ignorance. And that is exactly what these deeply deficient mental onanists yearn for.

== Darkness from the past ==

Late last year, next to the ruins of ancient Niniveh, the Tomb of Jonah was liberated from ISIS. 

I deem Jonah to be among the most important books in the Bible and one that you (yes, you) should read carefully. It is important for the book's lesson that fate is not 'written" or locked-in. No doom is sealed in advance! God can change his mind. 

And the implication is both philosophically consistent with all we know about the objective universe, from quantum mechanics to complexity and the Butterfly Effect, and it offers a clear-eyed refutation to some of the worst fanaticisms spewed by some of our neighbors.

Even if you believe the noxiously sadistic Book of Revelation (whose character is the opposite of Jesus, in every conceivable way) to have been a sincere prophecy, at the time that John of Patmos dreamed it -- all that means is that... God... changed...His ... mind. 

Think about it. Jonah makes clear that He can and does change his mind. And hence, we have a perfect answer to those Revelation-zealots who rub their hands in gleeful anticipation of nearly all their neighbors - fellow citizens - suffering the fates meted in that loathsome book. Sadistically eager for us to suffer eternal damnation, they relish a looming end to all the things that make us human -- ambition, uncertainty, courage, striving, improvement, art, argument, endeavor... yes, and democracy. And oh, yes. They pray for an imminent end to the United States of America. 

Now think about it. The Biblical God made threats and then relented, lots of times. And yes, he carried through on some threats! Only dig this: it never took Him more than a year or so, to decide. Not once, not ever, did it take 2000 years.

Hence, even if the wrathful ravings of Patmos really were God's intention, around 70 CE, we can pretty much assume - with confidence - that a loving God not only changed His mind about the awful BoR (even assuming He/She/ ever even made that awful threat). 

Moreover, given the spectacular successes of science and our recent enlightenment civilization - outperforming all predecessors, combined, by orders of magnitude, in every human desideratum, from freedom and knowledge to fun - we can hope this means that He will safeguard us from such people getting their ignoramus hands on the tools that science gave us. (Just look at the fantastic images that our loyal space probes are returning to Earth, and tell me what's magnificently sacred action.)

This is more than enough reason not to race to impeach Donald Trump!  His leaky, ill-disciplined and silly administration would be replaced by Mike Pence and a sweeping takeover by utterly disciplined Dominionists, bent on one thing -- apocalypse. A Pence White House would not leak. It would be hell-bent, literally, on ending the world.

To sample the BoR and up your education about what those people actually believe and want, see Patrick Farley's fantastic depiction, as a Pokemon Manga
== Oddities ==
Ever think the English language is strange? This article shows you some aspects you never knew, that are fascinating ...  indeed!  Take this example: 

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”  

I agree though there is a way-out, by using a hyphen to turn any pair of adjectives compound. ‘French-green’ or ‘old-French’ or ‘green-lovely’ can sound a bit odd, but suggesting you know something the reader doesn’t know, and inviting them to suspend the rules. We do it all the time in ferric-ironic interstellar-cubical California-new science fiction.
Gmail lets you store “canned responses” so you don’t have to retype the same stuff dozens of times.  You can then fill in whatever is unique, each occasion. Though… I’ve done this using Quickeys for 25 years. – the Canadian repeater for this site - has been tagged with a "sites whose addresses have been found in spam messages" rating and as a result is being blocked by some content management software, e.g. Trend Micro and Bluecoat . There are no issues with the site. (Thanks Glen Mackey.)

For your health... pay attention to what you eat: Foods to decrease your chance of heart disease.

Outlive the fools,
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

View From a Hotel Window, 6/30/17: Denver

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 06/30/2017 - 00:27
I actually took this photo on the 29th, local time (which it still is when I post this), but because Whatever is on Eastern time, it’ll show up as the 30th. Time zones! They are freaky. In any event, after some delay, I am now in Denver, in my hotel room, which I think is […]

The Big Idea: Jean Marie Bauhaus

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Thu, 06/29/2017 - 08:07
First books in a series are often easy to write — fresh ideas, new characters, cool situations. What about the second books, where you have to continue with the rules you already set out? How do you keep it fresh for the readers, and the author? It’s a question Jean Marie Bauhaus confronts in her […]

Administrative Note: All July Big Ideas Scheduled

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Wed, 06/28/2017 - 11:28
If you were waiting to hear if you were scheduled for July and have not heard from me, a) Sorry, b) Yup, they’re all scheduled. Still taking queries for August.

My Denver Comic Con Schedule

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 06/27/2017 - 19:09
Hey! I’m going to Denver Comic Con this weekend! I’ll be on panels and signing books! Here is my schedule! Panels: Laughter in the Face of Disaster (Friday 6/30 11AM Room 407), Military Scifi an Institution (Friday 6/30 3PM DCCP4 – Keystone City Room), Fight the Power! Fiction for Political Change (Friday 6/30 4:30PM Room […]

The Future of Free Speech - and Privacy

Contrary Brin - Tue, 06/27/2017 - 17:48
In an era when we have "weaponized narrative" and open warfare against every single knowledge or fact-based profession, my role as "Mr. Transparency" has mutated into fighting for the very concept of objective reality. And hence a break from our usual topics - science, science fiction and politice.

The Future of Free Speech: Trolls, Anonymity and Fake News Online: Pew released a report on social media and negative political trends with quoted bits from (among others) Brad Templeton and me. 

Yet, another Pew report  - The Future of Free Speech Looks Grim - dismally wrings its hands and declares there will never be a solution to the plague of trolls infesting the Internet. But you know me.  I find cynical gloom to be the surest sign of dullard minds.

How has awful human behavior been mitigated in the past? This report utterly ignores the lessons of 4000 years of human history, that the deterrent to abusive behavior is accountability. And sure, accountability that is pounded onto people from above -- by priests and kings -- became tyranny. Probably 99% of our ancestors suffered under either chaos - beset by bullies  around them - or else feudalism - repressed by king-lord-priest-bullies from above. But eventually we found -- (or stumbled into) -- a better way. Making accountability reciprocal so that it shines on everyone, including the mighty. 
In The Transparent Society - and in novels like Earth - I talk about how light is the great cleansing agent. Almost all harmful people - from industrial moguls to criminals to terrorists to trolls - are fatally allergic to it. On the first order, our solution is attributability, ending the cover of anonymity.

Oh, but there are second order effects. Much of the internet's charm and effectiveness comes from our ability to post or say some things safe from "being known as a dog." Must we lose that, in order to have accountability?

There are ways to get both... to have our cake and eat it, too. E.g. via mediated pseudonymity. But these solutions must start with rejecting the dour doomcasting of articles like this one.
== Spy fetishism... and a solution ==

Say hello to the camera; goodbye to privacy: A cogent article in the San Diego Union Tribune explores how Americans' compulsion to share everything online - especially video - collides with our concerns about privacy. I was interviewed for this piece, which features glimpses into our transparency-related anthology, Chasing Shadows. My co-editor of the anthology, Dr. Stephen Potts, and I were on radio (KPBS) discussing the book.... and the problem.
And you didn’t expect this? As if I haven’t warned you for night on 30 years? A hidden spy camera in an innocuous looking AC to USB wall charger plug.
And yet....   Founded by one of the fathers of the Internet, Vint Cerf, and MeiLin Fung, one of the pioneers of CRM software, People Centered Internet aims to assure that the Internet, and the data it creates, deliver economic, social and political empowerment, and permission-less innovation, for all humanity.  Envision a world where everyone is connected, and those connections, enriched by dialog and data, empower humanity’s thriving.
== Hazards & Worries ==
Charles Stross is a brilliant science fiction author, who also runs a cogent blog. Charlie combines these roles in a posting  that could make you laugh and cry at the same time. It takes the form of a rejection letter that he (supposedly) received for a novel proposal based upon the recent “WannaCry” ransomware exploit. The reviewer dismisses as implausible every single step along the path of this insanely hard-to-credit tale, from the NSA carelessly losing hold of its most precious tools, to the stunningly bizarre way that the thing mostly-ended, with the apparent discovery of a strangely unlikely deus ex machina off-switch.  And yes, life can be stranger than fiction!
What Charlie doesn’t mention is that those two cappers, the beginning and the ending ones, might have been intentional, all along. That opens up a whole 'nother realm of layers to the “real plot” of the story. Just sayin…
Still, have a look at this amazing way the WannaCrypt malware got substantially stopped by one white-hat fellow. An amazing tale and a prime example of why the default method for dealing with information age problems can only be transparency.

Facial recognition has progressed to a point where "dysmorphology" - the diagnosis of rare diseases - can be accomplished (initially) by computer analysis of a child's or adult's features.  This could be a valuable addition to the tools that were pioneered in the Tricorder XPrize contest, enabling quicker diagnosis and care in the field.  

Of course, it also raises chilling awareness of how far facial recog tech has come... and how utterly useless will be any vain efforts to ban or restrict the technology.  Especially when it becomes capable of some degree of lie detection.  These tools will either be monopolized by elites (leading to Big Brother forever) or else used by all of us to hold accountable lying politicians and so on (Big Brother never.)  You decide.
Tools to fake news: Reported on CRACKED… which is not The Onion, but should still be treated warily… “In November, Adobe demonstrated an experimental project they've been toying with called Voco. Voco allows you to "Photoshop" speech, changing what the speaker said to whatever you care to type. Based on a 20-minute sample of me speaking, someone could fabricate a pretty damn convincing facsimile of me saying, "I hate children" or "Earth should have a self-destruct button" or maybe even things I've never said.”  Oh, but if this is fake news it's cheap stuff, based on what we'll have next year. Or the next.
In chapter One of The Transparent Society, I talk about “The End of Photography as Proof of Anything at All: With sophisticated image processing, we may never again be able to rely on photos or videos as perfect evidence, but this may not be as calamitous as some fear.”  This is just more of the same. No method other than openness and transparency can possibly solve it.
== Reality TV with a better than average premise ==

 Contestants try to drop out and hide, as if being hunted… and they are!  By retired or profession cops and such, on HUNTED. Of course science fiction has been there.
While I find so-called “security expert” Bruce Schneier vastly overrated, and often flat-out wrong, I will gladly avow when he says something wise. In this article, he criticizes the way that market forces and laziness and cheapness have combined to make our rising Internet of Things horribly susceptible to hacking, botnets and such: “Regulation might be a dirty word in today’s political climate, but security is the exception to our small-government bias. And as the threats posed by computers become greater and more catastrophic, regulation will be inevitable. So now’s the time to start thinking about it. We also need to reverse the trend to connect everything to the internet. And if we risk harm and even death, we need to think twice about what we connect and what we deliberately leave uncomputerized.”  

Alas, as usual, Schneier is very good at raising scary alarums… and stunningly vague in his recommendations.  Which basically amount to “get government to solve it!”  Riiiight. 
Encryption based security systems fail almost weekly, but this is a big one. A clever new way that hackers take over whole systems. “A rash of invisible, fileless malware is infecting banks around the globe.”
== Threats to Democracy ==
Daniel Dennett used to at least contribute value to the conversation, but that was years ago. This time (oh go read it!) -- Fake News Isn't the Greatest Threat to Democracy. Total Transparency Is -- his chain of assertions - any one of which is diametrically opposite to true - shows that the fellow's truly gone bonkers.  

Take this paragraph.: "Staying afloat in today’s flood of information means understanding the subtle relationship between transparency and trust. And it is not what you might think ― the more transparency, the more trust.The reality is the opposite: when everything is exposed, all information is equal, and equally useless. When no one knows things that others don’t know, and there are no institutions or practices that can establish and preserve credibility ― as is threatened today with the new dominance of peer-driven social media ― then there is no solid ground for a democratic discourse."
What a towering loony! Each and every assertion is patently false, and I mean every one! We already live in a largely transparent world, compared to our ancestors, and we have developed many systems for separating wheat from chaff, pearls from swill. In fact the whole "fake news" phenomenon and the deliberate lobotomization of the American Right depends utterly upon sabotagingall those systems. Systems that let us grant credibility to the credible and subtract is from the wrong or wrongheaded.
Fox-ism and Trumpism are part of a deliberate putsch to undermine the greatest tools humanity ever had, and the fact-using professions who wield them.  And those fact-professions -- from science, teaching and journalism to entrepreneurs and civil servants -- depend utterly on open flows of information.
Now as de-facto "Mr. Transparency" you might think I decry all secrecy, but that would be dumb. In The Transparent Society I repeatedly show that the few secrets that governments, businesses and private individuals really need - including privacy in the home and intimacy with loved ones - are far better protected if we live in a generally open world, wherein the skulks and voyeurs and spies and peeping toms are better caught! And where we can relax about abuse of power because the mighty face more light than the rest of us. 

Even when members of the Protector Caste are engaged in legitimate secrecy, there are ways to supervise and ensure that it stayslegit.
Again and again, Dennett ignores the plain fact that we achieved almost all our modern miracles, including science, freedom, accountability and a cornucopia of wealth, because we are already more than halfway toward a transparent society, compared to every single other culture or tribe that ever existed.  He blathers that accountability and gradation of information is impossible, while ungratefully ignoring how much he has always depended on exactly those things, fostered and amplified by light.

Okay, I accept the sermon that he (unintentionally) preaches. That people who were right in the past won't always be. And pomposity is one of the warning signs.  So go to a mirror and tell that guy!  It's what I am about to stand up and do.

. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

New Books and ARCs, 6/27/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 06/27/2017 - 15:35
We interrupt this Tuesday afternoon to bring this fresh stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. What here is a book you would like in your possession? Tell us in the comments!

The Big Idea: Desirina Boskovich

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Tue, 06/27/2017 - 09:18
Memory and language: Two concepts that Desirinia Boskovich had in mind for her novella Never Now Always. And now, here she is, to remember to you, in words, why they were important to her story. DESIRINA BOSKOVICH: There are key moments and motifs in fiction that we latch onto as readers, and as writers. Symbolic […]

Harry Potter and the Initially Dismissive But Ultimately Appreciative Fan

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 13:25
The first time I personally encountered Harry Potter was not long after the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, came out. I was 30 and my daughter was an infant, so in neither case were these particular Scalzis the target demographic for the books, but by that time the buzz (and sales) […]

Why My Wife is Amazing, Part 73,592

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sun, 06/25/2017 - 12:05
Conversation between me and Krissy yesterday: Me: With all this bullshit around health care, and the possibility of pre-existing conditions and insurance caps coming back, we should probably look into supplemental insurance. Krissy: I got us supplemental insurance years ago. Me: You did? Krissy: Yes. I even have policies for very specific things. Me: Like […]

Stars and Fireflies, 6/24/17

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Sat, 06/24/2017 - 22:45
I finally got out the tripod, and it makes a difference. This is one you’ll want to see the big version of.

Exoplanets, waterworlds and asteroids

Contrary Brin - Sat, 06/24/2017 - 17:55
After three postings about politics and winning this phase of the Civil War... how about some space stuff?  Proof that we are members of a dynamic, bold, competent scientific civilization.

A planetary system similar to our own: Epsilon Eridani, at 10.5 light years, is one of the nearest solitary stars roughly similar to our sun, and hence was inspected by Frank Drake, in the 1960s, for possible SETI signals. Now, as well reported on the SETI Institute’s site, new infrared observations reveal a system very similar to ours, with a Jovian planet riding herd just outside a silicate-dominated asteroid ring and an outermost ring much like our Kuiper Belt… but with a third debris field also orbiting where we would have Uranus.  
It appears that most habitable planets may be waterworlds: On Gizmodo, George Dvorsky reports on a new study published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society suggests that most habitable planets are wet. “Like, extremely wet. Using computer models, astronomer Fergus Simpson from the Institute of Cosmos Science at the University of Barcelona found that habitable exoplanets, at least simulated ones, tend to be overrun by water, in most cases accounting for 90 percent or more of the total surface area,” unlike Earth’s relatively dry 70%.  Here’s the original paper’s abstract.
In fact, the authors’ inferences are a bit weak. Still, I have been saying that Earth is likely to be dry, for a water world, for 30 years.  Going back to this classic paper in the 1983 Quarterly Journal of  Royal Astronomical Society.  Or in this way fun youtube riff you’ll enjoy, I promise!
In fact, this is the safest and best "soft landing" to the Fermi Paradox.That the universe is filled with life-rich water worlds, but our Earth, skating the inner edge of the Sun's CHZ or Goldilocks Zone, has unusually more land surface. Hence hands-and-fire races like us are the rare thing.  When we build starships, we'll find lots of other folks out there... with flippers and such. Interesting to talk to, but not competitors.  

Of course there's another aspect to us skating the inner edge of the Sun's CHZ or Goldilocks Zone.  It explains why Earth has to shed heat so efficiently and even a little bit of greenhouse gas excess can be lethal.  But then, members of the Denialist Cult don't read my blog. And you science lovers don't need to be convinced.
== Again, the case for asteroids ==
A question asker over on Quora someone asked: “Is space mining sci-fi or a legitimate concept?

In fact, some of the smartest people on the planet have studied the material properties of meteorites, which are bits of asteroids or comets that have fallen to Earth. Back in the 1980s, John Lewis's book Mining the Sky (or his more recent Asteroid Mining 101) made clear that simple estimates of the various types of asteroids and their relative abundance reveal what’s out there…

…and what’s out there is a bonanza. Just one 1-km asteroid of the right type — if melted and cast using solar concentrators — would produce:
  • the entire Earth’s iron/steel/nickel production for a year.
  • Earth’s gold and silver production for 100 years.
  • Earth’s platinum group production for 1000 years. And that’s one such asteroid, and there are millions

Do we yet know how to “melt and cast using solar concentrators” in space? Only in computer models. But a different kind of asteroid is rich in water, so we’d harvest that resource much sooner, just by throwing a baggie around one and siphoning the evaporated volatiles.

Is all this guaranteed? Of course not. Do the payoffs seem to warrant some capital investment? Um, duh?
Oh, about “bringing asteroids to Earth”… the answer is you don’t do that! You bring them to lunar orbit and process them there. Which means that a lunar orbit station would be valuable in all sorts of ways. Including the profitable selling of services to all the wannabe nations — China, Russia, India, Europe and billionaires — who want to plant their own footprints on that sterile and (for now) utterly useless surface.
(If you meet a “back to the moon!” zealot inside the US, it will always be a republican, whose other mantra is “screw science!”)
== METI Redux ==

Over on Quora someone asked: “Stephen Hawking believes we should not attempt to contact alien civilizations. What’s his thinking? And do you agree?
I have been cataloguing answers to the “Fermi Paradox” - the question of why we see no blatant signs of other sapient species - since 1983, before it was even called the “Fermi Paradox”! In all that time, I have found that the brightest people — e.g. Hawking — tend to leap to declare “Aha! I know the reason!” 

It seems an immature habit, given this is a topic that has no known subject matter! ;-)
Seriously, the best we can do is catalogue and maybe rank-order these notions by plausibility. In my novel Existence, for example, I go through more than a dozen hypothetical reasons why interstellar AI probes might sit in the Asteroid Belt, tune in to our Internet, yet refrain from making themselves known.Among the 100 or so “Fermi” explanations, a few seem plausible (e.g. we may have anomalous-fluke intelligence), some are optimistic (e.g. Earth happens to be “dry” compared to most Water Worlds, and hence, most other bright races have fins, not hands.) And a fair number are pessimistic or dangerous, (I go through more than a few of those, in Existence.)
The dangerous ones aren’t totally compelling - though they worry folks like Nicholas Bostrom and Lord Martin Rees. And Hawking. But they seem plausible enough to put a burden of proof on those silly radio astronomers who eagerly seek to beam “yoohoo!” messages into space. I am among the SETI scholars who object to this foolishness called METI or Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligences.
This is not a place to go into detail, but you can find a very biting rundown of why so many of us object to this stunt on my website.
== The Politics of SETI ==
Stranger danger: Extraterrestrial first contact as a political problem, by John Hickman and Koby Boatwright offers an interesting essay on political decisions whether to respond to a SETI detection and the difficulties of communications with aliens.
Just released: Aliens: The World's Leading Scientists on the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, edited by Jim Al-Khalili, with contributions from Martin Rees, Paul Davies and others.
And consider this: Nuclear explosions and submarine comms distort space weather near the earth: Very-low-frequency (VLF) signals are emitted by ground stations "at huge powers" so they can reach submarines deep below the ocean's surface. Now comes a (still controversial) finding that these VLF signals can affect the Van Allen radiation belts above the Earth.  Satellites report that the inner boundary of the inner VAB has shifted over time. Measurements from the 1960s, when VLF transmissions were more limited, suggest that the inner edge of the Van Allen belts was closer to Earth then than it is today, according to NASA. It's possible that the inner boundary of the Van Allen belts is an "impenetrable barrier" and that, if humans did not send out VLF signals, the boundary would stretch closer to our planet.  

Gawrsh. There’s a sci fi premise that writes itself.  
 == Cartoons re SETI & METI! == 
Fom: SMBC Comics: 
We debated whether to send signals to earth...Why we might worry...How come we never hear from aliens?
From: XKCD Comics:If planets are common, where is everyone?The first ants to achieve sentience...
Brewster Rockit on METI and REGRETI
. . ...a collaborative contrarian product of David Brin, Enlightenment Civilization, obstinate human nature... and (site feed URL:

Interview, of Me, in Iowa, In Which I Talk About Writing

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 06/23/2017 - 23:02
Gotta be honest, I had entirely forgotten I’d done this interview last year when I was in Iowa City for a book festival. But eventually it all came back to me. Also, it’s a pretty good interview. Enjoy.

In Which I Announce My Plan to Hide From the News Until Head On Is Done

Whatever (John Scalzi) - Fri, 06/23/2017 - 15:43
Hey, did you know I’m currently writing a novel? I am! It’s called Head On, and it’s coming out in ten months. Also, it’s not done yet, and the deadline is real soon now. I need to make some real progress on it in the next few weeks or else my editor will give me […]
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